The Boundary Wars — Part One

Robert Livingston the Elder

If you want to know how and when the South Taconics were settled, the answer is tangled up in the turmoil of the boundary wars. It’s hard to settle land if no-one can agree on who it belongs to. All the processes that played out across America, from the dispossession of the natives to the clearing of forests, got delayed in the Taconics because of this bitter, decades-long struggle. But why did men die in a dispute over state lines?
One answer: same reason so many died in the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Revenge cycles plague all human societies, and in the eighteenth century, the ancient pattern played out right here along the New York-Massachusetts border. A grudge scaled up into a war, and only the machinery of the state could enforce a wary peace.
Another answer: a word that schoolkids chant every morning, a word that in 2019 seems both drab and incendiary, a word that was perhaps more vital and urgent in the 1700s. Liberty.

The Scotchman Robert Livingston got to the Hudson Valley in 1672, when the getting was good. The British had recently wrested control of New Netherlands from the Dutch, but neither empire had settled much of this vast and half-known territory. Livingston understood that his opening to wealth and power lay through control of land.
Using government jobs, strategic friendships, and marriage into a powerful family, Livingston leapt through a window of opportunity. Disease and war had emptied ancient Mohican holdings in the valley, and the colonial government believed that putting immense tracts in the hands of landlords was the best way to get the square miles settled and farmed.  In 1682, Livingston bought from the Mohicans “three plains” and “two or three other small flats or plains” (as described in his deed) along the Roeliff Jansen Kill in Columbia County. Doubtless his position as Secretary of Indian Affairs helped open up the deal for him. This first purchase was eighteen hundred acres: two hundred along the Hudson near the mouth of the Kill, and the rest “adjoining the said two hundred acres and soe running back into the woods.”

“Soe running back into the woods?” Those words may have been a root cause of riots a generation later.

In 1685 Livingston purchased “the land called Tachkanik” – supposedly only six hundred acres, an area that corresponds today to Copake and some part of the Taconic mountains. (Which means I live in what once was a Mohican settlement called Tachkanik.) In 1686, a Manor Patent was issued to Livingston by his friend Governor Dongan, combining his two purchases into one holding. But a comparison of the acreages cited above, to a 1714 map of the Manor, leaves one impressed with Livingston’s audacity. The map shows Livingston in control of more or less the entire southern third of Columbia County, his western boundary the Hudson, southern boundary a line drawn through the southernmost bend of the Roeliff Jansen Kill, northern boundary a line drawn not far south of present Route 23, and eastern boundary …. running quite a distance “back into the woods” — from Bird Peak in Connecticut to a stone pile that once rose near present day Catamount ski area.
The price: nine hundred and thirty guilders worth of wampum, and “kettles, knives, etc.” But whether this extinguished the native title was a question that plagued Livingston Manor for generations.

State boundary marker near Catamount

Certainly the Mohicans were sensible that, titles aside, Livingston had taken far more than he’d purchased. Hendrick Aupaumut, a Mohican historian writing in 1754, believed:
“When white people purchased … they said they only wanted the low lands, they told us the hilly land was good for nothing, and that it was full of wood and stones, but now we see people living all about the hills and woods although they have not purchased the lands. Hunting has now grown very scarce and we are not like to get our living that way.”

Livingston held potent power over his domain, most crucially the right to collect rents from any tenant occupying his soil. In addition, all improvements made to the land belonged to the Lord. This semi-feudal system sat uneasily in a society moving towards an ideology of individual property rights.
But the Livingston family persisted. In 1749 the grandson of the founder of the dynasty – Robert the Younger – took possession of the Manor, ready to defend and expand it.

One tenant family, the Van Guilders, occupied a remote spot two miles east of Hillsdale. Despite the Dutch name, their lineage was half Mohican, and they lived partly by farming, partly by hunting and fishing.  If the Mohican title to the South Taconics had never been clearly removed, didn’t their descendants – the Van Guilders — still own most of the mountains? Livingston’s stated boundary ran west of the crests of the Taconics, and patents for Mohican land in the Housatonic Valley, on the east side, were conflicting and confusing. Beneath these disputes ran the arguments over where exactly New York ended and Massachusetts began.

In these clouds of uncertainty over such a vast tract of land, some saw opportunity.  In 1751 David Ingersoll, a former Sheffield (Massachusetts) town clerk and justice of the peace, began to organize settlers in the Taconics. His apparent aim: establish the claim of the state of Massachusetts to the mountains, and then, establish the claim of David Ingersoll to at least part of the land.
That year, a petition to the General Court in Boston — requesting that the mountains be governed by Massachusetts – listed all the families living in the Taconics at that time and gave the size of each farm, number of years cultivated (and the number of barrels of “syder” produced, among other information.) In 1751 Christopher and Henry Brazee, John Hallenbeck, and Abraham and Richard Spoor all ran farms that had been in operation since 1691.
The 1751 petition also states: “… as to the quality of lands some of them appear to be very good…” but adds that “the great Tauconnuck mountain” is “very high and impassible.” Surely, in 1691, more accessible land was available? What drew families to such a remote place?
Whatever the reasons, the petition shows that in 1751, forty-four heads of families inhabited the Taconics, living on 966 acres of fenced land, most of it “along a small river or brook which heads in Taucaunuck Mountain.” The petition states that the inhabitants were “sensible that (their) lands are eastward of the utmost extent of (Livingston’s) patent” and asked “the protection of sd government to do duties or receive privileges there.” They had “paid great rents from year to year” but refused to do so any longer.

The next year, Ingersoll petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a grant “… beginning at the top of first great mountain west of Sheffield,” and “Running NW with general course of the mountains 9-10 miles then turning and running west about six miles …”
Six miles west of Sheffield? Wasn’t Ingersoll claiming a serious chunk of Livingston’s land running “…back into the woods?”
With his tenants petitioning Massachusetts, and Ingersoll trying to organize the land under his name, Robert the Younger struck back by attempting to eject two of his tenants, Hallenbeck and Loomis. He received a reply from a Massachusetts surveyor who’d laid out the disputed farms on the east side of the “Tackinick Barrick” (now Cedar Mountain) stating he “would like to talk in a friendly manner.”

“Tackinick Barrack” / Cedar Mountain

Livingston responded on two fronts. One, he made his case to the Governor of New York; in May 1752 the Surveyor General, Cadwallader Colden, answered: “I am of the opinion that the lands claim’d by the Government of the Massachussetts Bay within the Manor of Livingstone are evidently within the Boundaries of the Province of New York.” The Attorney General stated that he “would leave the petitioner to his ordinary remedy at law.” So Livingston’s men burnt down the house of a tenant, George Robinson, and arrested him for trespass.

Today you could drive from Livingston’s Hudson River manorial seat to the edge of his holdings in half an hour. In the eighteenth century, the trip took at least two days. But in May of 1753 Robert the Younger made the journey, meeting first with a committee in Sheffield, and then with his roiled tenants at “Taconic Mountain.” This gathering seems to have been an exercise in denial and avoidance. At one point Livingston read a copy of the 1751 Petition and asked his tenants: “… what induced them to sign the same, who answered that they had not signed it.” He then: “… asked them the reason of their names being subscribed to it, to which they replied, they could not tell.” However, it also came out that Ingersoll, in organizing the tenants, had “declared he had an authority from the Government of the Massachusetts Bay.” An agreement was reached —in Livingston’s understanding – that his property extended nineteen miles and thirty rods from the Hudson, and that the settlers would pay their rents. But he quickly came to believe – correctly — that he had only been put off by his adversaries.
The records of the Massachusetts General Court bear witness to a coordinated effort by the colony to push their boundaries as far west as possible, whatever Livingston’s deeds claimed. In 1752 Ingersoll submitted a record of expenses to the Court for business pertaining to the boundary dispute (mostly attempts to bail rebels out of jail.) The next year a committee visited the Taconics and declared that 3200 acres were “within limits of the petition.” A committee was formed to “dispose of the province’s lands lying west of Sheffield and Stockbridge.” And soon after Livingston’s meeting, Massachusetts surveyed the lands, and claimed possession by means of a tree-fence. (Despite the conclusions of the colony’s assessors describing the Taconics as “broken and barren” lands which would “cost a great deal of trouble to make a road into the mountains.”)
In July of 1753, several of the rebels, proclaiming their authority under Massachusetts law, “arrested” two Livingston tenants, Robert Van Deusen and his son – for trespassing. A proclamation for the arrest of this posse was issued. Livingston then led sixty men armed with “Guns, Swords and Cutlasses” to cut down the wheat field of Josiah Loomis and destroy five acres of Indian corn. In August, Livingston’s manor lord neighbor, Van Renselear, wrote to warn him that the “New England people Intirely Intendeth to Take you Dad or Alive.”
A confrontation at the home of Michael Hallenbeck is a cogent illustration of how disputes spiral into violence. A “company of men” (according to a petition sent by Taconics settlers to the General Court) arrived at Hallenbeck’s home in the mountains, armed with swords and pistols. Led by a New York sheriff, they claimed to be searching for Josiah Loomis, but Hallenbeck, armed with a hay fork, refused to believe them. At last he agreed to let John Robson in, but when he opened his half door, a sword sliced the back of his hand. Hallenbeck grabbed a gun and promised to fire if he wasn’t left alone. The sheriff “called for an ax to cut the shut door down and one of them took a great stone and flung against the door which made it tremble and they flung many great stones against the door…” One New Yorker at last broke in by somehow crawling under Hallenbeck’s door. When he “clasped Hallenbeck on the shoulder seizing him as prisoner” one of Hallenbeck’s sons “swore he would shoot and cocked his pistol and it missing fire three times and did not go off.” So lives were spared, by a faulty pistol. Hallenbeck was arrested, but escaped a few months later.
The General Court in Boston proclaimed that Massachusetts had title to the disputed lands. Two members of Livingston’s posse were arrested and imprisoned by the Sheffield magistrate.
The struggle reached a new level when Joseph Pain, a tenant, led a group accused of destroying one hundred and ten trees near Livingston’s iron furnace in Ancram. Ancram is about fourteen miles from the Taconics, so Pain’s action was nothing less than a guerilla attack by Massachusetts citizens on the province of New York. Confronted over his actions, Pain declared that the lands were his and he would destroy them as he pleased. (What principle underlay that bold statement?) Soon he was cornered in his home by a Livingston band whose leader proclaimed: “I will run my sword into your ass.”

Here – perhaps because autumn had arrived, and with it crops to be harvested? – conflict died down. The taciturn, stubborn tussle over the boundary line stumbled on: letters between Boston and Albany invariably close with some reference to a commission that would someday resolve the issue. But, without “Royal direction participation and concurrence” no resolution could be reached anyway.
In February, 1754, Livingston declared that these “restless people” – Ingersoll, Hallenbeck and Loomis – had visited Boston and returned not only with encouragement to go on agitating but also ten pounds each to cover expenses.